John Basmajian | The Basmajian Animation Art Collection

The Animation Art Collection - History

OUT OF THE “MORGUE” (A Horror Story with a Happy Ending)
December 9, 1992

Mickey's Rival (1936)
The landmark sale of Disney animation art in 1984 at Christie's East in New York, from the collection of animation artist John Basmajian, firmly established universal recognition and a new consciousness that vintage animation art, particularly that of Disney, is a true and pure form of American fine art. Since the historic sale from the BASMAJIAN COLLECTION, this fragile, delicate and beautiful artwork has been highly prized and lovingly sought after by large numbers of people all over the world.

The classic method developed by Disney in the making of animated cartoons involved many complex and sophisticated stages.  These stages included the rendering by the studio artists of manydifferent types and styles of artwork. This artwork ranged from preliminary story sketches to the final cels and backgrounds photographed in succession to create the illusion of movement in the final motion picture. This artwork was considered only a means to the end and very little regard was given it after a cartoon was completed.

Of the millions of pieces of artwork created by the Disney Studio alone, from the 1930's through the end of World War II, only a proverbial handful still exists. One minute of film time in a Disney cartoon is made of approximately 5700 drawings of various types.(3)  Sadly, there is probably less surviving material today than it took to make one minute's worth of film. In 1984, Disney Studios conservatively estimated that over 20 million sketches and cels were destroyed by the end of 1945.(2)  In actuality, the number is probably closer to 160 million.

Milk Bones (1940)
The irreverent end that came to most of this unique form of artwork is a sad commentary. In 1939, the moving of the Disney Studios from Hyperion Avenue to its present location in Burbank was in full swing. Artwork saved from completed cartoons had to be moved to the new "morgue." Because of its fragile nature, some of it already showed signs of deterioration.(1) Before and even after it was relocated, the art was sometimes piled and stacked, not always with the greatest delicacy, near heater pipes and vents. With the onset of World War II, it became more difficult to get new celluloid sheets.  The characters, each with its minute change in movement, were painted on them with water-based paints, then photographed in succession over a background. Finally, as the full blown war erupted, Eastman Kodak could no longer supply the studio with new cels because some material needed for their manufacture was no longer available. The federal government had taken over the studio and everything was geared up for the war effort. The morgue was ordered cleaned out; all celluloid sheets that might be reused were to be washed off.(1) Maybe one out of a hundred was flat enough to be reused.  The rest that were even slightly buckled or wrinkled were discarded. Thus was the fate of most of this beautiful artwork--it was simply thrown into the trash.(1) Throughout the remainder of the war and ever after, as more room was needed for storage, artwork continued to be periodically discarded. Not until 1970 was a studio archive established and a more careful policy of preservation put into practice.

It is remarkable that any Disney artwork from this period of animation survived at all. Some pieces were sold by an authorized vendor, Courvoisier, with the accompanying warning on the label: "This picture is fragile and should be framed under glass." Few people actually did this, however. Other pieces were given to studio employees as the morgue was cleaned out. Also, Walt personally gave out artwork as souvenirs to various visitors and dignitaries who toured the studio.

Pinocchio (1940)
Of this material, it seems that over all, little thought was given to its long term preservation. As reported by many people that acquired artwork at that time, it was often seen as a nice little thing to hang in a child's room, a den or on a bathroom wall. Sometimes it was simply stuffed in a drawer or haphazardly put in a work shed or garage.  As a result, much of it no longer survives. More often than not, what does still exist is found in poor condition.

The exemplary exception to this fact is the artwork in the BASMAJIAN COLLECTION. When some of it was first made available to the public in 1984 through Christie's, it's pristine condition and the sheer number of prime pieces from this early period still in existence were hardly believable.

During World War II, John Basmajian, along with other employees, was given permission to salvage some of the artwork as it was discarded from the morgue. Because he realized even then its intrinsic value as American fine art as well as cartoon history, he meticulously did everything he could to preserve it for posterity. The most important means to this end was his early development of a careful process of custom framing and sealing of each piece of artwork for maximum protection from the elements. To this day, there has been no signs of deterioration, since their framing, of any pieces still maintained by the Basmajians, many of which have been done for 30 years or more.

During the last decade, with the rise of a new group of enthusiasts and would-be experts,more study and research than ever before has been going on in an attempt to find answers to some of the problematic questions being posed. Such as:  Does lacquering the back of a cel painting help protect it, hurt it or make any difference?  Should a cel painting be restored and, if so, what kind of paint should be used? Should a picture be framed behind glass or Plexiglas? What kind of matte board is best used? Is a picture better off sealed in its frame or should the air be allowed to penetrate? Can a vintage cel from the thirties or forties be verified and distinguished from later ones? Et cetera!

The Worm Turns (1937)
Because there are so many variables, there can be as many answers to these questions as there are questions. This area of study is very new and actual resource material is scarce and difficult to access. In the meantime, we can only continue to build off of what has already been observed.

Moved by its masterful rendering, its breathtaking and often delicate beauty, it seems John Basmajian, with foresight, good fortune and the studio's blessing, took the opportunity and saved more vintage art at the time of its destruction during World War II than any other individual. He just couldn't stand to see it destroyed! From the moment he brought the first pieces of artwork home, he was trying to devise safe and effective means for its protection and preservation. The first thing he would do was sort and separate the artwork by type. Next, he would take fine talc and lightly dust the backs of cels to help prevent sticking. He would then count out so many cels, place tissue paper between each one and put them in a manila folder for safe keeping until he could prepare them for framing. Because there was a lot of material, relatively speaking, he had a certain amount of luxury to experiment and codify various preservation techniques.

The fact that Disney Studio, as their archive was being set up in the 1970's, asked if Basmajian might donate back some material to the new facility, testifies to the significance of what he had saved. He had politely declined, but indicated that he would be glad to make available any of his material to the studio whenever they wanted to view it for reference or study. Just before the Christie’s auction in 1984, when approximately 400 items were sold from the BASMAJIAN COLLECTION, the archivist from Disney stated that there were only some 50 cels and sketches left in the studio's possession from this period.(2) This statement reinforces the scarcity of early Disney artwork and also underscores the importance of the pieces saved by Basmajian.

During his quest to prepare artwork for framing, Basmajian noted that although some cels were more wrinkled than others, the paint on the reverse side, as a whole, was in excellent condition. Experimentation at the studio had been done early on in an attempt to stabilize the paint on some cels. For example, strips of scotch tape were placed over the back of the paint, while others were coated with clear nail polish. Full cels were even hot-pressed to their original backgrounds (not to be confused with the cels trimmed to the outline of a character and glued to a background in preparation for sale by Courvoissier, Disney's authorized vendor). For the most part, however, the majority of cels were left untouched.

The Brave Little Tailor (1938)
Basmajian felt the strips of scotch tape, which were already discoloring even in the 1940's when he started, made the cels unappealing. To him, the hot press technique was somehow too permanent in that the cels could no longer be removed from the background. This process also made the picture look flat. After contemplating whether anything at all should be done to the cels, he decided that the nail polish application had the most merit of the three methods. He came to this conclusion when he noticed some paint starting to lift from cels that had been handled a great deal. He felt a clear nail polish-like material would act as a glue without affecting the paint and if applied carefully would not detract from the picture. He wanted something better than clear nail polish, something that was not too brittle, but was flexible, hearty, durable and temperature resistant. It took many months of experimenting and searching for just the right material he felt could fill the bill. He finally found such a material in a certain lacquer-based, hot fuel proof, temperature resistant, clear non-yellowing model airplane dope.

After trying various ways of application, he decided that the most effective was to flow a coat of the lacquer-based material with a sable brush over and slightly beyond the entire painted surface. He would only overlap enough to ensure that the old paint would be securely held to the cel. Except with the greatest scrutiny, this overlapping is virtually imperceptible when viewed from the top side. The lacquer coat also helps to keep the old paint in the middle areas from popping out in patches as often happens to uncoated cels. Years after he began his preservation process, Basmajian noticed that the paint on some unframed, uncoated cels had often started to pop and flake, even though at the time he had gotten them, they had been in good condition. There is no doubt that his method of sealing the old paint to the cel is effective and beneficial when properly applied. Now because of EPA regulations, this highly effective product in its original form is very difficult to obtain.

If the paint on a cel was popping or flaking, the cel was set aside to be dealt with at a later time. When he did work on these few damaged ones, he preferred to touch them up rather than to completely repaint them unless it was absolutely necessary. In this way, as much of the original paint as possible was kept preserved. He accomplished this end by using a special method he developed that would allow him to apply and blend in freshly matched color to the damaged areas without negatively affecting the old paint.

If he did restore all the old paint to a cel, which was rarely necessary, it was painstakingly and meticulously done. Every color had to be an exact match to the old. Nothing less was acceptable. He felt that the integrity of the restoration depended on absolute fidelity to the original. To him, in no way did a proper restoration diminish the value of the artwork. He viewed it the same as the touching-up and restoring of paintings of the old masters when it becomes necessary. Cases in point are Leonardo Da Vinci's LAST SUPPER and Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling. Basmajian chose to use the more stable paints of today with all the appearance of the original for any needed restoration.

Mickey's Birthday Party (1942)
He framed his pictures behind glass. He didn't like the look of anything else. For him the glass allowed the truest color to show through and was easily and safely wiped clean. When asked about the danger of the glass breaking and damaging the artwork, he said the glass would act as a reminder of how fragile the artwork was and insure for safe handling. As an added protection, he always placed a clear cel between the glass and the picture.

When framing each piece of artwork, he made a custom matte which he hand-striped in ink, using a French-matte design to set off the picture simply and effectively. He used low and acid-free cotton-based matte board to retard deterioration.

Once a picture and matte was fixed in its frame, the back was sealed with a paper dust cover. He felt the backing paper was necessary to help stabilize and guard against further deterioration from too much moisture as well as dust.

He came to this conclusion after observing that sometimes the most wrinkled cels, when exposed to very humid air, in a comparatively short time, would wrinkle worse. Not only that, but some cels, all which should be water-proof, tended to ball up like a dissolving vitamin gel wherever they were directly exposed to water for any length of time. He believed that a probable cause for this kind of reaction was linked to chemical changes within the cels accelerated by their close proximity and exposure to heater pipes and vents during their earlier storage in the studio morgue.

In further observation, he noted that cels in an advanced stage of deterioration may not always be discerned by their appearance alone. They also have a definite sour taste which can easily be distinguished by lightly placing the tip of the tongue on the edge of the cel, being careful to avoid any painted area.  A normal cel has no noticeable taste. To him, the logical rule of thumb to follow was that a cel, particularly in this advanced stage of deterioration should be exposed to as little moisture as possible. Otherwise, there is a chance that it could eventually, in the extreme, turn into a gelatinous glob.

Through the beginning of World War II, celluloid sheets were made from a nitrate-based stock and were more inflammable than the later acetate ones which are still in use today. In true scientific spirit, Basmajian carefully clipped small samples of both early nitrate and acetate cels to more thoroughly study them. Specifically, he wanted to see what happened when they caught fire. He wanted to know for himself how easily they would burn, and to note any characteristics that might be helpful in verifying the vintage or, for that matter, the authenticity of a cel if the question were to arise in the future.

He learned that the nitrate material, when held over a low gas flame with forceps, would immediately burst into a flash of light and fire, then disappear in a very faint poof of white smoke. This smoke left a distinct medicinal-like odor very close to that of camphor oil. The early acetate cels from the 1940's, when similarly exposed to a gas flame, did not ignite as readily as the pre-World War II nitrate ones. They tended to burn more slowly, less brightly and curl up into a charred residue. They created a great deal more smoke, mostly white but marbled with black. They left an unmistakable sweet smell, like that of slightly burnt or caramelized sugar. When modern acetate cels (cels made in the 1980's) were exposed to a gas flame, they burned similarly to the acetate cels from the 1940’s, but left a slightly different odor. The smoke was more pungent, definitely less sweet and seemed to suggest a hint of sulfur as in burnt matches.

Cels and backgrounds were punched with corresponding registration holes so they could be precisely lined up to photograph. Examples in Basmajian's collection indicated that through 1935, a "two-hole" registration was used.  After that time there was a shift over to a "five-hole" registration.

Snow White (1937)
Cels from these early Disney animated films can be distinguished by their very fine and delicate ink lines. Often, different colors of inks were used to outline the character, particularly in the features. The ink lines were applied by tracing them from the animator's original onto the top side of the cel by the girls in the Ink & Paint Department. The cel was then turned over and the character's color was filled in with an opaque waterbased paint on the reverse side. This refined inking and painting process is characteristic and tell-tale of early Disney animation art and distinguishes it from all others. Basmajian commented that it would often take as long as six months before an inker was ready for production work! Later, a Xerox process was used to produce the character's outline on the cels, but only in black. It was introduced in 1961 with 101 Dalmatians and pretty much eliminated the hand-inking stage. The color was still filled in on the reverse side in the same manner. The Xerox lines on the newer cels tend to be sketchy and thicker. Periodically, the Disney Studio has released "new" LIMITED EDITION cels of the earlier animated films as collector's items. These cels are still hand-drawn in different colored inks and are hand-painted by today's artists; however. the ink lines tend to be much thicker, less delicate.

These “new” cels are a credit to the artists, but they cannot compare to the fine artwork of the original early cels. Now, with computer animation, the cel stage has been eliminated in modern productions.

Basmajian's love and dedication to the preservation of this beautiful and wonderful artwork has had a far more reaching impact than even he could have imagined. As a direct result of the 1984 Basmajian-Christie’s auction, pieces of vintage animation artwork have surfaced from attics and back closets that otherwise would have been disregarded and overlooked. Whole new markets for the sale of animation art have since been exploited. Even the Disney Studio itself is selling newly created artwork from its current computer-assisted animated features with a ferocity that might not have been possible had the Basmajian sale not firmly established animation art's place in history as American fine art.

John Basmajian's foresight left the world a tangible piece of history, a piece of history that was almost lost forever, a piece of history that will now be there to delight and enrich the lives of future generations.


1.  Basmajian, John, INTERVIEWS AND MEMOIRS.
    Los Angeles, 1992

    New York, 1984

3.  Thomas, Frank and Johnston, Ollie, THE ILLUSION OF LIFE.
    Abbeville Press, New York, 1981